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A History of the Buena Vista Estate

Updated: May 26, 2020

The story of the Buena Vista Estate begins on the 10th of February 1789 when the Royal Governor, John Murray (1732-1809), Earl of Dunmore and Viscount of Fincastle, granted a 150 acre parcel of land (Dept. L&S Book A: 1785-1865) to the Honourable John Brown, Esquire (1724-1796). Brown served as the President of His Majesty, King George III’s, Council for these Islands and lived in The Bahamas for more than 50 years. During his time at Nassau “…he filled at different times almost every office of responsibility in the Government, with the greatest honour and integrity.”

A plaque on the Senate building at Rawson Square commemorates Brown and reads; “In 1790 this property, later known as ‘The Public Lot’, was purchased by the Hon. John Brown, a member of the Governor’s Council. The centre building was erected prior to 1790. After renovation, the Upper House was occupied by the House of Assembly (from 1796 to 1805) and the Governor’s Council. In 1841, when the Governor’s Council was divided into the Executive Council and the Legislative Council, the latter body continued to meet here.”

Shortly thereafter, Lord Dunmore ceded the property to John Brown. Brown then quickly entered into an indenture with Stephen Delancey (1748-1798) a Loyalist and slave owner from New York. Delancey had distinguished himself as lieutenant-colonel of the New Jersey Loyal Volunteers in 1782 and rewarded (the family’s property was confiscated by the Continental Congress) with the position of Chief Justice of The Bahamas. He was married to Cornelia (1753-1817), the daughter of the Rev. H. Barclay of Trinity Church, New York and was son to Major-General Oliver De Lancey, Sr. (1708–1785) and grandson to Etienne DeLancey (1663–1741).

A copy of indenture between Brown and Delancey, located at The Department of Archives, reads that; “The land was located to the west of the Town of Nassau and behind Dunmore House which was Government House at the time. It stretched from West Hill Street (with an imaginary line drawn from west to Augusta Street opposite West Hill Street to the north) to South Street in the south, Nassau Street in the west and Hospital Lane to the east.”

Less than a decade later, Delancey went on to become the Captain General, Commander in Chief and Governor of the (British) Colony of Tobago. He died in 1798, at the age of 50 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire en route to England.

DeLancey was with me, and speaking to me when he was struck [by a cannon ball].” He continued by writing that De Lancey “…was an excellent officer, and would have risen to great distinction had he lived”. Sir William’s wife, Lady Magdalene DeLancey (1793-1822), later published the book; A Week at Waterloo to much acclaim by both Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott.

In 1801, the original land grant was divided into eighty lots by Surveyor General Benjamin Lord. The land surrounding the Buena Vista was sold to well to do free slaves who made-up what became known as Delancy Town. For the next 50 years ownership of the Buena Vista Estate is unknown. According to local periodicals in 1851, the Buena Vista passed into the hands of the Reverend William Woodcock (1821-1852), Curate of St. Agnes Church for the price of £250. Woodcock is best remembered for his advancement of education in the colony, especially amongst blacks. He founded the Bain’s Town Free Day Schools known as St. Agnes’ Day School and the Woodcock Primary School. He lived at Buena Vista for less than a year until his untimely death.

Woodcock was originally the Canon of Christ Church in Adelaide, South Australia. He practiced law in 1843, at Melton Mowbray in England where he promoted every institution which he thought would aid the moral and religious progress of its inhabitants. In 1845, he experienced a very sudden pulmonary attack. Then in August 1846, he traveled to the island of Madeira where he rested for three months then followed to Nassau where he had friends residing. After a few months he returned to England. Then in the summer of 1847, he visited Malta, Rome, Damascus, the Dead Sea and Jerusalem. Upon his return he published Sites and Scenes in Scripture Lands.

In 1848, Woodcock was appointed the Curate of St. Agnes Church by the Bishop of Jamaica. Shortly after his ascension in 1850, he published Memoranda about the Bain’s Town Tornado. His pulmonary ailment returned shortly after he purchased the Buena Vista and he died in Eleuthera at the age of 31. His body was returned to Nassau where it was interred at St. Agnes Church. Governor John Gregory (1849-1854), who gave his name to Gregory Arch, was chief mourner at his funeral.

After Woodcock’s death, the Buena Vista passed to the Reverend Robert Dunlop (1832-1891). He was the son of Samuel Dunlop, Minister of Hillhall Presbyterian Church in Lisburn, Northern Ireland. He is best known for enacting the Presbyterian Church Property Act in 1875 which regulates the management by the minister and elders of the Presbyterian Church (Act No. 19 of 1875). His tombstone at the Western Cemetery, within walking distance from Buena Vista, reads; “Minister of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church for twenty-five years he occupied a prominent position as a citizen of this colony”.

A Buena Vista Restaurant publication from the 1960s tells us that; “‘As the years passed, Buena Vista mellowed into a beautiful and graceful mansion, watching the hectic scenes below from its serene vantage point on the hill above Nassau’s harbour.’ In his will, Mr. Dunlop left the house to Mary Emily Johnson, subsequently Mary Emily McLean, younger daughter to the late Otis Johnson who, with his family, lived next door in Hillsboro.’ [Sic] The house now known as “Los Cayos,” is the present home to Mrs. Arthur S. Vernay.’”

Mrs. Vernay’s husband, Mr. Arthur Stannard Vernay (1877-1960) was the leader of the Society for the Protection of the Flamingo. He worked with Audubon expert Robert Porter Allen who scoured the Caribbean searching for flamingos. In his popular book,On the Trail of Vanishing Birds, Allen found that the colonies on the island of Andros in The Bahamas had already disappeared. He determined that the largest surviving group of Caribbean Flamingos inhabited the isolated back-waters of Lake Rosa on Inagua. That is where Allen and the Audubon Society decided to make a stand. A group of influential backers were recruited in Nassau to form a Society for the Protection of the Flamingo, with Arthur Vernay as its leader. Two wardens were hired on Inagua, brothers Samuel and James Nixon, and Audubon helped finance the entire operation. Today the park is administered by The Bahamas National Trust.

Then, five years after Dunlop’s death, local periodicals once again advertised that the Buena Vista was once again up for sale. Four years after Dunlop’s death we know that the house was occupied by the Hon. Charles George Walpole (1848-1926), former Attorney General of the Leeward Islands and now Chief Justice of The Bahamas. For his service and in honour of her Diamond Jubilee, Queen Victoria knighted Walpole at Windsor Castle. During his lifetime he published;A Rubric of the Common Law,A Short History of the Kingdom of Ireland,The Leeward Island Magistrates Act and an English translation of the Ottoman Penal Code.

In 1912, another advertisement for the sale of the Buena Vista appeared in local periodicals. At this time the house was being occupied by William Hart-Bennett CMG (1861-1918) who was a British colonial minister in Nassau. He held the second most important post in the colony, that of Colonial Secretary. In 1918, Hart-Bennett was appointed Governor of British Honduras, now known as Belize. Shortly after his arrival he died “…from injuries received in the great fire…” He rests at St. James’ Cemetery in Toronto, Ontario.

His wife Ella Mary Tuck Bennett (1865-1914) from Norwich, Ontario was a prominent figure in Nassau society. She was president of the Nassau Dumb Friends League (precursor to The Bahamas Humane Society) and a member of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (IODE). Ella grew up in Japan and is best remembered as the author of An English Girl in Japan (1904). She died in 1914, en route to England, when her ship the RMS Empress of Ireland was struck by a Norwegian ship on the St. Lawrence River. This accident remains Canada’s largest maritime disaster during peacetime.

During that same year, title to the Buena Vista once again becomes clear when the Honourable Sir Joseph Brown Kt. (1840-1919), originally from Bermuda (no relation to John Brown) and member of the House of Assembly, Executive Council and Honourary Legislative Assembly of the Bahama Islands, sold the house to Harold James Petrie from Hamilton, Ontario for £1,500.

Brown served in Government for 34 years and in 1914 was knighted for his public service. A local periodical wrote “Sir Joseph Brown retires from political office after an unusually long service which began in 1882, when he entered the House of Assembly as one of the representatives of the District of Andros at a General Election.” He died one year after his retirement and is interred within sight of the Buena Vista at the Western Cemetery.

The Petries occupied the house from 1918 until 1922. Harold purchased the house on behalf of his father, Mr. Alexander Bain Petrie, who was one of Guelph, Ontario’s most successful manufacturers and business men. He founded the Petrie Manufacturing Co., which was originally established in Galt (now Cambridge, Ontario), and later carried on in Guelph and Hamilton, Ontario.

The company produced the Magnet Cream Separator and later the Magnet Gasoline Engine. Today a group from Guelph is working hard to preserve the Petrie Building on Wyndham Street North

After his death in 1921, his wife Sarah Petrie and son Harold sold the estate for $15,000 to Patricia and Edward “Ed” Toothe from Madison, New Jersey. They arrived to Nassau in 1933 and set-up residence at the Buena Vista Estate where life was very different than it is today; there were few roads, few automobiles and electricity was not readily available throughout New Providence. There were also few telephones; the telephone number at Buena Vista was 2 and that of Government House was 1.

The Buena Vista Estate had a full staff of cooks, gardeners, maids, footmen and a butler all of whom were fed each day. After the death of Mr. Toothe the house was converted into a hotel and restaurant by Mrs. Toothe. With little to no experience Mrs. Toothe relied on a group of men and women from the local community who worked at Buena Vista and went on to become Members of Parliament, Union Leaders, and Businessmen. Buena Vista was the first major operation in The Bahamas to be completely staffed by Bahamians. Many friends who stayed with the Toothe’s were people of wealth from the United States and England. There were Ministers of the Crown, United States Cabinet Members, and heads of large corporations. However the former King Edward VII, Duke of Windsor, was forbidden from entering the gates.

The Nassau Daily Tribune wrote that “Its large high‐ceiling rooms, it’s [sic] interesting old pictures and furniture, its spacious nooks and crannies gave a dignity and charm to the life of its period that is not associated with modern living but which is, nevertheless, still sought by men and women of cultivated taste. There are not many of these homes left in the island and its historical associations alone seem bound to attract the interest of the visitor.”

In the winter of 1960, Mrs. Toothe leased the Buena Vista Estate to a group of hoteliers comprised of Mrs. Lorraine Onderdonk (1902-2000) former manager of the Victoria Hotel and owner of the Cumberland Hotel, Mrs. Hedwig Hauck former Cuisine Manager from the Prince George Hotel and later from the Cumberland Hotel and chefs Mr. Terry Mahony and Mr. Bernard Perron from the Cumberland Hotel. The bar formerly known as Captain Joe’s Locker was renamed the Canary Bar. It was previously named Captain Joe’s for Captain Joe Miron who sailed The Bahamas with Burl Ives on the Abaco Queen.

The guest register from the 1960s is a list of “who’s who”. It includes amongst others the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, Earl Caernarvon whose family was of King Tutankhamen fame, Zachary Scott, Robert Mitchum, Bobby Kennedy and his sister Eunice Kennedy with her husband Sargent Shriver, Jack Parr, Sidney Poitier, Ed Sullivan, Ralph Belamy, Joan Crawford, Sir Malcolm and Lady McAlpine, Debbie Reynolds, Eddie Fisher, Morton Downy Jr. amongst others. In its time the Buena Vista was the premier restaurant at Nassau and one of the best in the West Indies.

The Buena Vista was eventually purchased by McAlpine & Sons, Ltd. By 1966, all the partners from the Onderdonk-Hauck group had sold their stake in the property. Less than half a decade later, it once again passed hands to a group that was eventually headed by Mr. Stan Bocus. A 1994 article from The Bahamas Islander tells us that “From the early 1860s until the turn of the century the Buena Vista matured into a graceful, colourful old‐mansion influenced by the life‐styles of its occupants. There have been many owners of the property since the beginning of the 20th century, each of whom has contributed particular character and interior designs now reflected in the graceful home.”

Under Mr. Bocus’ supervision the Buena Vista prospered. Those visiting the house included Eddie Murphy, Crocodile Dundee, Jimmy Dean, Regis Philbin and Julius Erving (Dr. J) to name a few. Meanwhile guests enjoyed the music of Andre Toussaint who was one of calypso’s greats. At the Buena Vista, Toussaint developed the lounge style version of calypso which was mellower than the other forms. His online biography tells us that; “He died in 1981, renowned among calypso performers and listeners as one of the founding fathers of modern Bahamian music.”

A decade and a half after Toussaint’s death the Buena Vista was hired to be featured in the James Bond film Casino Royale. The Estate served as part of the opening scene for the film. More specifically it served as the fictional Nabutu Embassy in Madagascar. Daniel Craig aka James Bond came to the Estate for filming. Shortly after the opening scene was filmed, in 2006, the Estate was sold to the National Insurance Board.

In 2013, after sitting derelict for many years and undergoing a major restoration, the Buena Vista Estate opened as the home to John Watling’s Distillery which was named for a 17th century buccaneer who landed on San Salvador Island and re-named it after himself. San Salvador was the island of Guanahani where Christopher Columbus first landed in 1492. The name was officially changed from Watling Island back to San Salvador Island in 1925.

At his namesake distillery Bahamians hand-craft JOHN WATLING’S rums which are aged for upwards of five years. Sisal plaits are hand woven and brought over from Cat Island and Andros to adorn the bottle and pink sand is brought over from Eleuthera and San Salvador, formerly known as Watling Island, to filter the rainwater used in all John Watling’s Distillery products. At the visitor experience renowned Mixologist Wilfred Sands serves his famous JOHN WATLING’S Rum Dum cocktail. The site is also complete with a 200 year old well measuring 7 feet in diameter and 74 feet deep and other historical artifacts.

On the 10th day of February 2014, the Buena Vista Estate, home to John Watling’s Distillery, celebrated its 225th Anniversary. The Islander Magazine published in 1974 that; “The Buena Vista could hardly be termed as “the modern in spot” where everyone and his granddad hang-out. As a matter of fact, it is an aged building furnished with the grandeur of Lords and Governors. Its ground marks the history of a nation, times of battle, slaves and the building of old forts.”

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